Chris Nell is building on the difficult lessons of last season.
Now, the Bowling Green sophomore is emerging as one of the best goalies in college hockey.
An improved mental approach is one of the primary seasons he leads the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with a 1.77 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
The Hobey Baker Award candidate and Mike Richter Award candidate ranks fourth nationally in goals-against average and sixth in save percentage.
Nell and the Falcons are back in action Friday and Saturday when they face Ferris State in their final regular-season home series.
BG is 17-11-6 overall and 13-6-5 in the WCHA. The Falcons are tied with Michigan Tech for second place in the league, two points behind Minnesota State, and three points ahead of fourth-place Ferris and Northern Michigan.
“The biggest thing that’s helped me from last year to this this year is the mental side of things — just staying calm, staying cool, staying collected, not getting too high or too low,” Nell said.
Nell fashioned a solid freshman season overall, posting a 2.32 goals-against and a .917 save percentage in 13 games. But he wasn’t as sharp down the stretch with a 3.50 goals-against and an .872 save percentage in his final six games.
Tommy Burke eventually emerged as BG’s No. 1 goalie late last season, starting 11 of the team’s final 13 games, including all three playoff games.
“(I’m trying to) keep things on an even keel throughout the games and throughout the whole year, no matter if I’m playing well or I’m playing badly, making sure my head is in the right spot,” Nell said.
The improved mental approach this season has enabled Nell to play consistently well during the second half.
When he has a rare off night, he usually bounces back with a strong outing in the next game. Two of Nell’s best games this season have followed difficult outings.
He stopped just 16 of 21 shots in a 5-1 loss at 18th-ranked and WCHA leader Minnesota State Feb. 5, but made 31 saves the next night to help the Falcons to a 3-1 victory and a series split.
Nell allowed a soft goal with just nine seconds left last Friday to give Alaska (Fairbanks) a 2-1 series-opening win. But just 24 hours later, Nell’s 21 saves led BG to a 4-1 victory for a split of the road series.
“He didn’t let that affect him,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “As a goaltender, you have to have a short memory. You have to put that puck or that goal or whatever aside, that game aside.
“If you’re not mature mentally or you’re not strong enough mentally, you’re not going to be able to do that. He’s done that. He’s grown up that way. For me, that’s the biggest change from last year to this year. Physically, you’re always going to be working on your game and your conditioning and your core strength, your legs as a goaltender. But the mental growth is where he’s made has been the biggest change.”
Nell has started 28 of BG’s 34 games, including 12 straight games and 21 of the last 23 contests. The only two games he didn’t start in that span came Jan. 2-3 against Clarkson when he sat out because of a head injury suffered Dec. 30 against Western Michigan. He’s played 1692:13 this season, accounting for just over 82 percent of BG’s minutes.
“It was helpful,” Nell said of his second half last season. “People look at failure sometimes as the end of your career. You’re going to fall down a lot before you get back up. That really helped me going into the summer, realizing it’s not always going to be great, but you can’t let the bad get your down so much where it’s just continuous bad.
“You have to learn how to take the failure and come back stronger. The second half of the year was a real struggle for me. I wanted to play so well so badly, and that got into my head and in the way. To learn that throughout my freshman year was huge for the mental side of things coming into the year.”
The mental improvement, Nell said, also includes making sure he continues to work hard on the fundamentals and being sharp every day in practice.
Another of Nell’s best games this season came in a 4-1 loss Feb. 12 against Miami at home with a career-high 45 saves, many coming on quality scoring chances.
“It’s just not letting things get to you,” Nell said. “If someone goes through the crease and clips me, or if I let in a bad goal, I try not to let that get me frustrated, angry, to let my emotions get the best of me and keep my emotions in tact.
“Knowing if I can do that, I can keep playing the way I know I can play. Confidence is the biggest thing, knowing that everyone is here for a reason. If you’re at this level, you can play and just play the game and have fun.”
Nell already is BG’s career record holder in goals-against (1.94) and save percentage (.929). He’s also on pace to set the single-season BG record for the best goals-against and save percentage.
Burke, a senior this season, set BG’s single-season goals-against average record last season with a 2.18 mark. Tyler Masters holds the single-season save percentage record (.922, 200-01).
“You always hope to see a year like this,” Nell said. “It’s been good so far, and there are still some games to play. I felt really good throughout the summer. I felt confident. Did I see it coming? I can’t say I 100 percent did. But I knew if I came in and played well, I could have a year close to this.”
Before Nell, BG’s record for career goals-against was held by Burke (2.42). The save percentage record was .915, set by Jordan Sigalet (2001-05).
The Falcons have complemented their goaltending with solid defense. BG leads the WCHA and is eighth nationally in goals allowed, 2.09 per game.
Nell started the season with an impressive 25-save performance in a 2-0 win over Ohio State Oct. 10 in the Ice Arena. He then stopped just 24 of 27 shots in his next start in a 4-1 loss at Western Michigan, but has played consistently well since.
“I was confident early in the season, and the team’s been playing really well in front of me, that obviously helps, that we’re pretty good defensively,” Nell said. “Right away, in the beginning of the year, it went kind of up and down the first few games. I felt good. After the first couple games, I thought this could be a season I could see myself playing like this the whole year.”
Nell’s three shutouts this season tied the BG single-season record he originally matched last season. Masters (2000-01), Jimmy Spratt (2008-09), Andrew Hammond (2012-13) and Burke (2013-14) share the record. Spratt is BG’s director of hockey operations.
Nell needs just one shutout to tie Masters (1999-2003) and Hammond (2009-13) for BG’s career record of seven, even though he’s played in only 42 games.
Keeping it simple
Nell said he’s simplified his game, too, another reason for his improvement.
The athletic 6-foot-3, 184-pounder is trying to limit his movement, allowing him to be in the right position. He’s also adept at reading each play and finding the puck, which enables him to be in the right spot, so the puck can hit him.
“Even in juniors and coming into my first year here, I tried to do too much at times and got myself out of position at times,” Nell said. “As the year’s gone on, I’ve simplified my game.”
Nell also has improved his puck-handling. His only two assists came earlier this season.
“Last year, I had no confidence playing the puck,” Nell said. “This year, we’ve been talking about it. We’ve been doing a lot of that throughout the weeks and practices. I’ve just gained a lot of confidence with it through repetition and making good plays. There’s always going to be a hiccup here and there during the game. I feel a lot more confident outside of my net this year, compared to year’s past.”
Nell played three seasons of high school hockey at Notre Dame Academy in his hometown of Green Bay, Wis., before going to the United States (Junior) Hockey league as a high school senior. He had a 1.58 goals-against and a .923 save percentage in 30 games in his final season at ND.
Nell had a difficult adjustment in his first of two seasons with the Chicago Steel in the USHL, his first away from home. He turned 18 in September that fall.
“I was going away to school where you don’t know anyone … I missed close to 50 days of school that year and you’re always on the road for hockey,” Nell said. “That was a big transition in my life.
“I was homesick, but the guys and the coaching staff really helped me. Wisconsin high school hockey is good, but the jump to (the USHL), every player there can play the game. It was intimidating at first. But as the year went on, I gained more confidence.”
Nell was the Steel’s backup goalie during the 2012-13 season, posting a 3.46 goals-against and .894 save percentage in 25 games — statistics that were far from impressive.
Yet, Nell’s play still caught the eye of the Falcon coaching staff that season. He committed to the Falcons in February 2013.
“Chris is an athlete,” Bergeron said. “We saw some physical things that were a great starting point, and then to hear how he’s wired and what his approach is every day, both on and off the ice, you take a chance on a person, a young guy, and that’s what it was.
“We knew if his starting point was that first year in Chicago as a high school senior, where could he be in four years with his daily approach?” Bergeron added. “We really liked the way he was wired and we really liked his daily approach. “When we did our digging on him, everything came back outstanding. You add in the competition here, now he’s starting to play at a very top level.”
Nell was Chicago’s No. 1 goalie during the 2013-14 season with a 3.18 goals-against and a .910 save percentage in 43 games.
“My first year at Chicago was a learning experience that really helped me last year,” Nell said. “I wasn’t playing every night that first year. It was more of a wondering game when I was going to play. It taught me to be patient, and when you get your opportunity, run with it.”
Although Nell committed to BG in February 2013, he could have waited until the 2014-15 season to make his college choice.
BG was one of the only schools to show interest in Nell
“We seriously considered that,” Nell said of delaying his college choice. “As a family, we weighed all of the options of staying in the USHL, committing to Bowling Green or waiting for other offers. When I came here and met the staff and saw everything, I fell in love with Bowling Green.”
Even though Nell is only a sophomore, he’s already receiving plenty of attention from NHL scouts.
Among the scouts to watch him play against Miami was former NHL goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Anaheim Ducks’ goaltending consultant. Nell is an undrafted free agent. Rumors already suggest he could turn pro before the start of next season.
“I haven’t even had a conversation with my family or even the coaching staff, “ Nell said. “I know at the end of the season that’s going to be something there, but it’s a great program here, it’s a good spot. I honestly haven’t even given it any thought.
“(Playing pro hockey), that’s the end goal, whether it be the AHL, ECHL or the NHL. That’s been a goal of mine since I can remember.”
Nell, who turned 21 in September, has a 3.119 grade-point average. He’s majoring in business, with an emphasis on marketing.